Trifling: The Refined Art of Rebutting Knowledge with Empty Words


Growing up in beautiful South Oak Cliff, Texas, my siblings and I noticed my mother’s habit of calling people and situations “trifling.” As children, calling something “trifling” behind my mother’s back was guaranteed to get a laugh. We called anything from a slow-moving beetle to a neighbor’s barking dog to the mean lady at the candy counter “trifling.”  Yes. We had a lot of fun with that word.

So image my surprise upon learning that little Sunday School teacher that we called “Momma”, who finished high school back in the late 1940s, was expertly applying the core epistemology of John Locke.

Question: What do you do when contentious academic discourse strays down the rabbit hole after a logic debate turns toward entertaining fallacies?

The Epistemology of John Locke

As a reminder, John Locke (1632-1704) was “an English philosopher and physician, widely regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers and commonly known as the “Father of Liberalism” (Hischmann, 2009. P., 79). Known as the father of empiricism, Locke (1689) believed that knowledge comes through sensations. He was among the first to argue for a social contract between citizens and religious tolerance. In his most famous work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke expressed theories regarding the origins of human knowledge (“Online Library of Liberty,” n.d.). In Two Treatises of Government (1683), Lock radically argued that political authority comes only from the consent of human’s natural rights and freedoms (Lock, 1683). Outrageously, Locke argued against René Descartes’s innate knowledge theories, the most generally accepted at that time, by writing the human mind is born as a “blank slate.” 

However, as mentioned, Locke is my guy now because of his theories regarding how to handle people that use trifling words to refute rational logic and evidence (Locke, 1689).

For instance, Locke’s writings show he had little patience for those that chose to use trifling words as indications of knowledge concerning a subject. As a “woke” man credited with considerable intelligence, logic, and understanding, in his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Chapter VIII, Of Trifling Propositions, a book written over 330 years ago, Locke strongly advised against suffering fools. I decided to pass his enlightened epistemology along in the hope you will enjoy reading Locke’s work as much as I did.

John Locke: On the Use of Trifling Words

“I leave to be considered. This, I think, may confidently be affirmed, that there are universal propositions, which, though they be certainly true, yet they add no light to our understanding; bring no increase to our knowledge” (“John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” n.d., para. 1) (Humph!).

These obviously and at first blush appear to contain no instruction in them; for when we affirm the said term of itself, whether it be barely verbal, or whether it contains any clear and real idea, it shows us nothing but what we must certainly know before, whether such a proposition be either made by, or proposed to us. Indeed, that most general one, what is, is, may serve sometimes to show a man the absurdity he is guilty of, when, by circumlocution or equivocal terms, he would in particular instances deny the same thing of itself; because nobody will so openly bid defiance to common sense, as to affirm visible and direct contradictions in plain words; or, if he does, a man is excused if he breaks off any further discourse with him. For, at this rate, any very ignorant person, who can but make a proposition, and knows what he means when he says ay or no, may make a million of propositions of whose truth he may be infallibly certain, and yet not know one thing in the world” (“John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” n.d., para. 2.1) (Ha!)

 “How identical propositions are trifling. I know there are some who, because identical propositions are self-evident, show a great concern for them, and think they do great service to philosophy by crying them up; as if in them was contained all knowledge, and the understanding were led into all truth by them only. What is this more than trifling with words?” (“John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” n.d., para. 3) (Ouch!)

Okay then.

While Locke’s words about the futility of arguing with people that use trifling words instead of logic might seem harsh, similar words were written by another man credited with great wisdom.  Arguably, King Solomon once wrote: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 25:4 New King James Version). (My. My.)

Jennie’s Perspective

If I learn nothing else about academic discourse and the need to address logical fallacies this semester, I would feel I have learned enough.

As a scholar-under-construction, I was elated to learn that my education began long before I entered my doctoral program. I learned that my mother’s warnings against arguing with trifling people and trifling situations holds water.

Like Locke and Solomon before her, my mother told us to tell trifling people and trifling situations what we want them to know then – simply walk away. Proof once again. Ain’t nothing like some good old fashioned home training. (Proverbs 22:6 New King James Version).

(Drop the mike, Mama. Thanks for everything and I miss you very much.)


Hirschmann, Nancy J., Gender, Class, and Freedom in Modern Political Theory, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009.

John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 1. Retrieved 9/22/2019 from the World Wide Web:

Locke, J. (1894). The philosophical works of John Locke (Vol. 2). George Bell & Sons.

Locke, J. (1821). Two treatises of government.

Online Library of Liberty. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Online Library of Liberty. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Online Library of Liberty. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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